Last year, China contracted a severe case of the African swine flu, resulting in the deaths of more than 100 million pigs and a spike in domestic food prices. Today, the country has been paralyzed by the coronavirus, scaring the public into wearing face and gas masks. Now China may be confronted by another crisis: the bird flu. A city in the province of Hunan, close to the coronavirus epicenter, reported its first “highly pathogenic subtype” of the H5N1 flu. For now, it is considered a minor issue, but it has the possibility of metastasizing into a significant headache.
Bird Flu in China
In Shaoyang City, officials discovered an outbreak of avian influenza that killed about 4,500 broiler chickens on a farm, representing more than half of the farmer’s flock. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs announced that local health authorities responded to the scene and culled approximately 18,000 chickens.
It is unclear when the outbreak took place or when the culling happened. The ministry noted that it had received a report of bird flu detection on Feb. 1. No human cases had been reported.
This comes at a time when China’s resources are stretched thin and concentrated mainly on fighting the Wuhan coronavirus that has killed more than 400 people and infected more than 20,000. Should the bird flu become more serious, it has the potential to be as bad as the coronavirus and even SARS.
China first experienced the bird flu in 1996 when it was first isolated from a goose. Years later, hundreds of human infections were reported in more than a dozen countries in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Since 2003, the H5N1 avian flu has taken the lives of 455 people worldwide. And experts say it is hard to eradicate because there have been cases in Bangladesh, India, and Vietnam, where the disease spread to pigs, donkeys, and wild ducks.
Symptoms are comparable to the flu, including cough, fever, diarrhea, respiratory problems, and runny nose. You can contract the bird flu from having close contact with the animal, but there has been no sustained person-to-person transmission. Overall, H5N1 maintains a high mortality rate and can lead to pneumonia, organ failure, sepsis, and acute respiratory distress. Treatment may vary based on the symptoms, but the most common is taking antiviral medication and sitting in isolation.
While the bird flu has been situated largely in Asia, North America has quietly contended with avian influenza since December 2014. Also, in 2004, an H5N2 bird flu strain was identified in Texas without any human cases. It was eradicated within months as officials sprang into action.
Dozens of U.S. counties and two Canadian provinces have confirmed cases of the bird flu. In total, there have been 37.5 million infected chickens and 7.4 million turkeys. It has not been a crisis, but the bird flu has had an impact on more than 200,000 poultry farms in the United States and Canada. It might have a lingering presence since authorities warn that it is a perpetual threat due to migratory birds moving south for the autumn and winter. Despite the effect on farmers, there has yet to be a serious spike in poultry prices.
This is the worst time for China to have another outbreak of a disease, even if it appears benign right now. Since a large portion of Beijing’s resources and personnel is dedicated to eliminating the coronavirus, it could take one slipup for a disaster to be born. For now, the situation in Hunan is something to monitor and file for future reference. The world can only hope that the bird flu has been neutralized and will not metastasize into something as horrendous as the African swine flu.
In the meantime, here is a question to ponder: Is history repeating itself in China?
Read more from Andrew Moran.